How Did I Get Here?


Yeah, well. When you find yourself wedged head down in a narrow, cobweb-filled space between ceiling and roof tiles, you do tend to take stock of your life.

I was laying a cable to the satellite dish; a second one, so that we could record one channel while viewing another. But the original run had been put in when the house was far from finished. All is buried now behind stud partitions and under layers of insulation. My only choice was to to squeeze into the little triangular storage space at the side of the attic room, crawl along its length until I reach a gap that slopes down to the eaves, through that to where the slates meet the top of the stone wall…

Except the sloping part is way too tight. I probably could worm my way down it, but worming back up in reverse might be a different story altogether. One with the headline “Skeleton Discovered”.

Luckily though, I see a literal way out. Light shines dimly in through a knothole in the fascia board. Thanks to a slight stiffness in the cable, from where I’m lodged I can maybe feed it through – and from there run it along the front of the house, hidden by the gutter. It’s a matter of a few feet, but in the claustrophobic location it feels as tricky as in-flight refuelling.

Why all this death-defying effort? It’s not like there’s so much good on television you need two channels of it at once. Ludicrously perhaps, it’s mostly because I came across a decent satellite card that was almost too cheap not to buy, about a quarter the price of my original one. Admittedly, that was a much nicer job. It can pick up Saorview, and comes with a fully-featured Windows remote control. The remote (and software) with the cheap card are more novel than useful, but that didn’t matter. It picks up satellite channels – even HD ones – perfectly well, and can be controlled seamlessly by Windows Media Center. (Or MythTV if you like.) The result is just an easy-to-use entertainment system, one that doesn’t intimidate parents or children. All the cleverness happens behind a pretty blue interface that anyone can use to surf, record, and pause TV.

I hope Microsoft aren’t in the process of quietly dropping Media Center. In Windows 8 it’s an extra you have to buy, and even then you can’t boot directly into its television-friendly interface but still have to go via the screen of tiles. Yes, when Microsoft has an idea nothing gets in the way. Your phone, your tablet, your desktop PC has to have a touch interface. Even your television on the other fucking side of the room has to have a touch interface. That’s vision taken to the point of obsession. But it would be a terrible shame if they gave up on Windows Media Center just because its face no longer fits. In its quiet way it’s one of the best things they’ve done, with possibly the nicest EPG of any satellite/cable/PVR device. It takes a bit of trouble and/or experience to set it up just right, but you can get all the channels you actually want into one manageable menu, and banish all the porn and religion to the outer darkness.

Perhaps the worst-designed part is arranging the order of your channels, which has to be done painstakingly with the arrow keys of the remote. Here is where a touch interface – or just drag and drop – would be a good idea. But no, this is a home entertainment or “10-foot” interface, so everything has to be done via the remote.

I think we’re zoning in on the problem here, aren’t we? It’s not bad interface design per se. Microsoft make some great interfaces, and probably research human-machine interaction more than anyone else in the world. It’s when a design orthodoxy takes over. This one is for remote controls. This one is about touch and touch only. As if letting us plug in a mouse or boot straight to the desktop would mean abject failure. It must be PURE. And so we actual users have to find ways to get around all the convenience they invented for their ideal users.

Why not have devices designed to be used from whatever distance, by whatever means, that we want to use them?


Is There One Brave TD?

Click here to see me on Al Jazeera News! (Albeit briefly)


It’s often remarked how little Irish people are protesting, despite the cruelty of the cutbacks and the blatant injustice of much of the debt foisted upon us. You could come up with a variety of deep psychological explanations for this, but in doing so you might be overlooking one major factor: The lousy coverage that public resistance gets in the mainstream media.

Case in point, the brave folk of the Ballyhea Bondholder Bailout Protest have been marching every Sunday for two years now. But even when they brought their protest to the ECB in Frankfurt (you’ll remember, I went with them) they hardly won a mention from the press or TV.

Until last Sunday! Finally, they got on RTÉ main evening news. Why now all of a sudden? I think I know: Al Jazeera got wind of it. Would’ve been more than a little embarrassing for the national broadcaster if a story from their own country went big internationally and they didn’t even have footage.

You can see me there in the first few seconds. I’m on international TV! Don’t we look all brave in the January weather? In the Middle East they must think we’re downright superhuman.

But there are ways you can protest without risking pneumonia, with help of Yesterday a judge rejected a challenge to the legality of the government piping money directly from poor to rich, on the grounds that a private citizen does not (somehow) have the standing to take such a case. In his findings though, the judge did mention that a TD would.

So we’re looking for one brave TD. provide an email that will be sent to all of them, it’s just up to you to sign it. A suggested text is provided, but of course you can use your own.

Or you can use the one I wrote, which puts the case a little more starkly:

Dear TD,

We need someone to take a stand. The lending bubble, and subsequent channelling of the nation’s remaining wealth to the very institutions responsible for it, has sent one message and one message only to the people of this country: That we exist, that we live and work, not for ourselves or for the ones we love but purely for the further enrichment of these institutions and their owners; that they now effectively control our lives – and control you, our supposed representatives – as surely as if we were goods or livestock. We are being owned.

We need to reassert the purpose – indeed the existence – of democratic government. For once, a single TD could make all the difference.

Yours sincerely,

Help to stop the madness before the last of this country’s life is sucked away. You can send the letter here.

Humour Technology

Satellite Of Luck


Something weird happened today.

I was doing an electronics job, replacing the LNB on a satellite dish. That’s the receiver bit at the focus there; it’s much more than just an antenna though. Controlled by the set-top box, the LNB is actually re-tuned to the particular frequency you’re looking for. The microwave signals are too tenuous to bring down a wire to a tuner, so it has to be done right here. Which is why you can’t watch one satellite channel while recording another, and have to find something on RTÉ to watch instead.

Before I understood this I’d tried to split the signal from a dish into two boxes, with predictably unpredictable results. What you need is an LNB that has multiple outputs. Here we went with four, so you can record two satellite channels while watching two others. Say.

A word of warning if you’re considering doing this – I got the LNB in Maplin. Don’t do that. Maplin are well known to be on the pricey side for some things, but in the case of the LNB I paid at least double what I could’ve got this for online. They provide a great service and I like to patronise them, but that’s a bit much.

Especially as it wouldn’t fit. The current LNB (pictured) has an integral bracket, The new one doesn’t, so I had to go back for one. Also – now that I’d actually done research – some silicone grease and self-amalgamating tape. The former is a jelly-like waterproofing agent in a tube, the latter a strange sort of rubbery tape that melds with itself to make seals for the cable connections. And if the LNB was overpriced, these accessories were eye-watering. The bracket, a small piece of plastic that bends into shape, fetched €16.49. Here’s the same thing for a fiver. The job could have been done for half nothing with a little planning.

But anyway, armed with all the right bits today I climbed the ladder, undid the cable and pulled off the old LNB, pushed in the new one with its bracket, did up the cable, came inside and turned on the TV. And this is where the weird thing happened.

It worked first time. No hitches, no inexplicable problems, no wasted hours figuring out what I did wrong. Swap the units over… TV pictures. I didn’t have to alter the positioning of the LNB, futz with its polarisation angle, re-scan the channels, nothin’. The job was just done.

It’s a strangely uncomfortable feeling.

Second shoe, where are you?

Cosmography Humour

My College Is Trying To Kill Me


“Check Ignition”

A Bowiesque start to the day. This is the note I left myself so that when I got up at 7:00 I’d remember to make sure the car battery hadn’t died. It had happened the day before, thanks to a faulty ignition lock on the new old car that allows you to take the key out without fully switching off the electrics. If it had happened again I’d need to start charging immediately to have any hope of making it in on time.

Our team was holding a 9:00 a.m. meeting ahead of a project deadline. Between myself and another member being ill, we hadn’t had a full meeting since the project’s inception. We’d worked through the fever and pretty much got it finished online, but we needed to meet to finalise and sign off on the thing. The battery, to my relief, was fine.

And that was the last thing that went right today.

The first lesson was that even if you arrive at the college at 8:30 you still won’t find a parking place on the campus. I had to go out to the park-and-ride facility again, and so arrived slightly late. However there was only one other member there anyway. Not being quorate and not feeling under any real pressure, we chatted with classmates as we waited. But just as another team member turned up, someone said something that reminded me – in my hurry I’d forgotten to display the student parking permit on my car. To avoid a clamping, I had to rush back out to the facility. By the time I got back it was after ten.

And there was a smell of panic in the air. While I’d been gone, the word had got round that the lecturer had put an ambiguous message on the online noticeboard. Whereas we’d understood that we needed to have a team contract and the briefest description of what our project involved, it now seemed our deadline objectives were:

1 – Project Teams Identified
1 – Project Assignment Outline
2 – Signed Project Team Contract

We’d done the rest, but what exactly was a “project assignment outline”? What examples we could find suggested it was a pretty detailed breakdown of our (imaginary) client’s problems and how we intended to fix them – including crap like time and cost estimates, diagrams, charts. All to be done by 6:00 p.m. the next day. We starting allotting the writing tasks. If we broke it down and did a section each we could probably pull something together in time.

No wait, we’d made a mistake. It wasn’t tomorrow at all. It was 6:00 p.m. today. That… That wasn’t really possible.

So perhaps the lecturer had made a mistake. Why were there two items one on that list? Maybe the second didn’t belong. It was time for our first lecture; we did go in but I spent most if it on my phone, furiously searching documents on the noticeboard for clarification. I decided to email the lecturer about it. We might not get a reply in time, but anything was worth trying.

As luck would have it, we met him after the lecture. But he was cagey, and refused to give us an answer any more enlightening than the one he later sent by email:

As mentioned in class the perspective of this project assignment is as if the project team were working with the Client as consultants.

The project assignment outline should be written to reflect this in terms of depth and scope.


Lunch would have been next but there was an extra lecture we were supposed to attend about plagiarism policy. We couldn’t afford the time, so skipping the thing we were already skipping lunch for (I had also skipped breakfast because of the panic in the morning) we took a room, hooked my computer up to the projection system, and started brainstorming some sort of response to those nebulous criteria. By the start of the next lecture we had something, just not in English. I sat at the back – missing important background to our next assignment – hammering our thoughts into some sort of document.

I should point out incidentally that I am still running a slight temperature here. I’m not entirely over whatever it is that’s kept me mostly asleep the last few days. Adrenalin cleared my head then, but as I write this I’m in bed paying for it.

Then a mad rush to email and print this stuff – he wanted it both ways. It wouldn’t send; it seems I couldn’t make the secure connection my email requires via the college’s network. (Which incidentally would suggest that any communication to the Internet we make on campus has to be open to sniffing by the college – I will have to investigate that further.) By the time we solved the printing the lecture for which this submission was effectively the deadline had already started, so I sat in that figuring out a solution to the email problem. Half way through, it sent.

Here’s your chance to guess the ending.

Yes, there was an extension. Many other people, it seemed, had also been thrown into confusion. We now had until Monday to do this. But that’s not the highpoint. It turned out our instructions had been deliberately ambiguous – to “see how we’d handle it”. A real-world situation.


Of course you do get difficult customers in the real world, and you do your best to please them. The customer is always right; at least until they’ve paid. But when one customer’s indecisive requirements cause you to let down others, you need to think again. And in this exercise that’s precisely what the other lecturers today were – clients that I didn’t give my full attention to. If this were real reality, I’d have to seriously consider ditching the problem client.

We didn’t take up the extension. Whether by accident or design, this last lecture mentioned Parkinson’s Law – Work expands to fill the time available. It had expanded enough already.

Humour Technology

The Medium Is The Extra Large

I’m applying for some college courses. After I fill out the online form and pay my money, one springs me with a surprise: They also want an idea for a “digital media project”. Huh. If I had an idea for digital media project I wouldn’t be applying for college.

So I’m staring at this, trying to figure out what they mean. What is a digital medium anyway. Someone who signs seances?

OK, seriously. Seriouslish. A medium is any means of communication more complicated than direct conversation. A telegraph, a town crier, a tombstone, a talking drum, a cardboard tube if sufficiently long. If you’re speaking through it, it’s a medium, and so the vast majority of human communication is via some medium or another.

What is digital? People use the word to mean “Things on the Internet and… stuff”, but it’s really anything that can be encoded as numbers. An analogue recording is a model of one physical thing (say a sound) made in another physical thing (say a groove), and so a copy of an analogue recording is a model of a model. Digital recording models the physical thing purely as an abstract number, which is why it can be copied forever without any loss of detail. That’s a huge boost in efficiency, so not only is most music and television digital now, but digital technologies also play vital roles in apparently analogue media like newspapers and radio. Really, a better question is what isn’t digital media now.

Which gives me my idea. What, indeed, has yet to be made digital? I should make some outrageous proposal to digitise a thing that everybody thinks of as quintessentially analogue. A digital… cloud? No that’s already a thing. A digital aeroplane! What could be less like a string of numbers than a solid object flying through the air?

Except, even planes are digital already. The joystick connects to a computer now, not to the wings and tail. It’s like they’re playing a flight simulation game and the game is flying the plane. But they’re in the plane, so they’re in the game… All a little head-wrecking when you think about it.

So I turn my attention to that third word. What constitutes a “project”? Any plan of action, really. That being the case I have a number of digital media projects lined up – first thing tomorrow morning in fact. Turning off the digital alarm on my phone and checking my digital email. Getting up and turning on the digital TV. Seen this way, pretty much my whole life is a digital media project.

Ladies and gentlemen of the admissions committee, I submit: Myself.


Psychics Didn't See That Coming

Did you see how TV3’s amazingly awful “Psychic Readings Live” reached the attention of leading cultural curiousity curator, Boing Boing? Not because the TV psychics are a bunch of lying charlatans taking advantage of the weak and ignorant – nothing new there – but because they aren’t even good at taking advantage of the weak and ignorant.

I think this show replaces the one where the woman pretends to be sexually aroused by drunk men on the phone. Maybe they got too many complaints about that. Superstition driving out sex – says a lot about this country really. Not that one is worse or better to my mind. It’s about the same level of sadness. Both consist of people willing to lie for money.

And of course it’s all OK, because it’s just entertainment. It says so clearly up there in the corner, just in case anyone should try to sue them for only pretending to have godlike supernatural powers.

Is it wrong? I’m not sure. But I wish I lived in a world where you couldn’t make a living by lying to people. Even – no, especially – when they want you to lie to them.


Boxfish – See What They’re Saying

Terrifying concept?

How do you search TV? Titles and prepackaged programme information are available, sure, but it’s the content that’s of real interest. In particular, the vast amount of fresh content that TV generates every minute, around the clock. It’s relevant, immediate, important – and unobtainable.

Or it was, until Eoin Dowling and Kevin Burkitt, two Irish guys working in Silicon Valley, had one of those ideas. The data is there. Most TV channels have captioning, streaming dialogue and often description in text form right alongside the images. It’s intended to help hearing-impaired viewers of course, but its potential is greater even than that. All you need to do is strip that text out and you can index it just like any search engine indexes the Web. Using technology they devised themselves, and by arrangement with major broadcasters in the US, UK, and Ireland, Dowling and Burkitt created Boxfish, a search engine for the captioning data stream.

It’s still in beta and a little unrefined. I see no way yet, for example, to limit the results to just one of those countries. But it works and it’s fast, returning results for your search terms often within seconds of the word being uttered in a broadcast.

Some have complained that it fetches just the text itself and not the video clip it transcribes, but as desirable as that would be for entertainment purposes, to focus on it is to overlook the real usefulness of Boxfish. Visual medium or no, the vast majority of the actual information on television, particularly the content that itself becomes news – interviews, discussions, briefings – is delivered verbally. Boxfish will make that information far more accessible. If that seems a small thing, consider how instant reporting of what’s said on television will break down a major barrier between broadcasting and the Internet, allowing far deeper integration between old and new media. Picture for example setting up alerts to switch you to a channel as soon as a hot term is mentioned. That could change how people use television.


Narwhal Circus

…Will be resumed as soon as possible. I’m in bed with a bad cold.

Well I say bed, it’s more the couch, in front of the TV. Sipping a hot drink. I’m recording TV and updating my phone. In the oven, a whole chicken is roasting for dinner. It doesn’t sound much like hardship, and I have to admit it’s not. I’d probably enjoy doing this little – if I was doing it of my own free will.

But I’m cooking the chicken now because on Sunday I was too fuzz-headed to figure out how, and I haven’t written this blog – or done anything much else even remotely constructive – in days. I think the closest I got to creativity was a couple of rounds of the Game of Liff over on my friend Susan’s blog, and even then I faded out almost immediately.

That’s typical in fact. I don’t feel so bad – my inner ears are little diving bells, but there’s no other real discomfort – I just can’t concentrate. Not that I’m a paragon of laserlike focus when I’m well, it might be admitted, but now I’m all, you know, kind of

That was going to be a sentence that trailed off aimlessly, but while I was writing I honestly fell asleep. Weirdly, my attempt to describe reality became the reality. But I feel a bit better for it at least. Maybe today I can write something coherent.

Hoping you’re well.

Humour Technology

Take Me To Your Media

Braun HF 1 television receiver, Germany, 1958
This is what my Media Centre PC doesn't resemble most

I’m still hiding in a happy kernel of geekery, away from a cruel and now markedly more expensive world. Much of last night was spent setting up the new old PC as what I expansively call a “Media Centre”. That is of course just fancy talk for a computer attached to a TV, worthwhile though since we got a wide-screen one. (Well, wide-ish.) My mother will appreciate this when she gets the hang of it, but things may be a bit confusing for the transition. I’d barely got her to stop calling the computer monitor “the TV”, now I seem to have arbitrarily reversed my position.

But I’m sitting here writing this on my knees. With a wireless keyboard on my knees, I mean. I’m not on my knees. And to clarify my clarification, I didn’t think that you thought I was writing this column on my knees, with a pen. I have the keyboard on my knees, but the words are appearing on the TV. Which is the sort of thing people liked to do in science fiction films. Cool. And simultaneously – as it is a fairly wide screens – I’m also catching up with episodes of QI on YouTube. (The one with Nina Conti the ventriloquist.)

Ideally the screen would have about four times the area, but this is actually pretty nice. If nothing else, it improves my work posture – from hunched over on the couch to sitting back on the couch. I feel slightly better-off already.


Seán Gallagher’s Open Secret

Three Thumbs Up

The national sport of Ireland is, as you know, Getting Away With It. Politicians like Haughey and Ahern were not popular in spite of their unexplained wealth. People want to beat the system, so they vote for politicians who beat the system.

What they get from that of course is a system beating itself.

So it’s not that people are tricked into thinking that Seán Gallagher has nothing to do with Fianna Fáil. They know it’s a pretence, and they are willing to play along with that pretence. They may tell each other that Gallagher represents a new, reformed party, or even a future alternative to it. But does he? Hardly. He’s close to the Construction Industry Federation, of all things. Lobbying group for probably the biggest bull in our whole economic china shop. All that’s new is the improved presentation, and Gallagher is all presentation. He’s not a successful businessman, but he plays one on TV.

Yet for many, he provides the perfect compromise: They can pretend they’re still voting to punish those responsible for our economic free-for-all, while actually promoting the party they believe most likely to bend the rules in their favour. It the same old politics of the man on the inside, the same old story of the state that subverted itself.

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